CHICAGO (AP) _ What once was an optimistic target date for Scottie Pippen's return is now just another night that the Chicago Bulls will have to struggle to win without him.

``Even though it sounds like an excuse, it's a good one,'' said Steve Kerr, whose Bulls are 14-9 after being 20-3 at a similar stage last season. ``Scottie's great. With him, we'd probably have the best record in the league.''

When Pippen had foot surgery two months ago, the Bulls said he'd be out until January. A few weeks later _ but before Pippen's bombshell that he was so upset at management that he never wanted to play for Chicago again _ he hinted at a much earlier return.

Speculation centered around a mid-December, nationally televised home game against the Los Angeles Lakers.

Well, that game has arrived _ it's Wednesday night _ but Pippen will be on the bench in designer clothes instead of on the court in a Bulls uniform.

He's had recurring foot pain, isn't practicing regularly, and said last week that he doubted he'd be ready to play for Chicago or any other team until January. He missed Tuesday's practice at the United Center.

Pippen's trade demand hasn't stopped his teammates from pining for him.

Most believe he'll relent and return to help the Bulls go for their sixth title this decade.

``I certainly miss that other scoring threat and his all-around skills,'' Michael Jordan said Tuesday. ``The defense has to focus on someone like a Scottie Pippen. Right now, the defense is not focusing on anyone but me.''

Jordan is shooting 42 percent and averaging 26.4 points. He entered the season averaging an NBA-record 31.7 points on 51 percent shooting.

Bulls coach Phil Jackson said before Monday's victory over Phoenix that Jordan, who turns 35 in two months, looked tired.

``That's not true. I feel good,'' Jordan said. ``We have to do ... our jobs so one man is not really the focal point.''

Jordan will be the focal point as long as he's with the Bulls, but he's not the only one hurt by the absence of Pippen, who in past seasons ran the team like a point guard, rebounded like a power forward and defended the other team's small forward.

``Scottie's not here and it affects the whole team, from one through 12,'' Kerr said. ``Toni (Kukoc) otherwise would be coming off the bench. The bench guys would have a much more clear rotation and we'd be playing with Scottie, Michael or Toni.

``I can't wait until Scottie returns, because we need him.''

Bulls general manager Jerry Krause said Jackson, Jordan and Dennis Rodman were re-signed during the offseason with the intention of winning another championship, so it's unlikely that he'll trade Pippen.

Krause did acknowledge Monday, when the team had its 500th consecutive sellout, that the end of the dynasty is near.

``Chicago fans are really great and I think they should celebrate this team. But in future years, we know that the level of play is not going to continue, in the sense that no one wins championships all the time,'' Krause said.

``As we change our franchise, we expect to be a competitive team and we hope the fans are going to like to watch it. But for fans to have unrealistic expectations that this is just going to keep on like this, the NBA doesn't work like that.''

Wednesday night, the Bulls might get a look at the next great team. The Lakers are young and talented _ even without Shaquille O'Neal, who isn't expected to play because of a strained stomach muscle.

``Sometimes teams take gigantic leaps in this league,'' Jackson said. ``Not too often do they come from back in the pack to suddenly being in the finals ... but this is a team that if everything goes well and their injuries are abated, they could just take that gigantic step.''

No wonder Pippen put the Lakers at the top of his list of teams to which he'd like to be traded.